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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an article in the
Georgia Historical Quarterly
Vol. 7 No. 1 (Mar. 1923), pp44‑53

The text is in the public domain.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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 p44  The Yamassee Revolt of 1597
and the Destruction of the Georgia Missions

By J. G. Johnson, M. A.
University of Georgia

Georgia, known to the Spaniards as Guale, was a province of Florida during the latter part of the sixteenth century and throughout the entire seventeenth century. Only a few months after the founding of St. Augustine, Menéndez hastened north, and after establishing friendly relations with the Indians of the Georgia coast, he left garrisons on St. Catharines Island, known during this period as Guale Island or Santa Catalina de Guale, and on Cumberland Island (San Pedro). This occurred during the summer of 1566. Farmers were soon settled around the presidios, and two years later Jesuit missionaries came over to look after the spiritual welfare of the Spaniards and Indians. Their labors proving fruitless, the Jesuits moved to Santa Elena (South Carolina), where their lack of success was just as pronounced as it had been in Guale. A number of them then went to Axacan (Virginia) and there met death at the hands of hostile Indians. Whereupon every Jesuit in Florida — and Spanish Florida included all the vast area between the Mississippi and the Atlantic, with a vague and indefinite northern boundary — forsook the land in a body for Lower California and the Pacific slope region of Mexico.

Thereafter, although the coast settlements were extended to all the more important islands, for two decades Georgia was thought to be extremely undesirable as a field for the labors of the religious orders. The Jesuits never again sent missionaries to the Florida provinces, and the task of developing the mission system to a high degree of efficiency in this region fell to the lot of the Franciscans. Apparently the first Franciscans to reach Florida came over in 1573, but after the death of Menéndez the following year, the temporal as well as the spiritual needs of the settlers of Georgia received  p45 little attention for a period of more than twenty years. Probably the few "religious" who braved the rigors and dangers of Florida during this period, confined their attention to the Indians of the neighborhood of St. Augustine. Perhaps not one missionary made his way north of Cumberland Island during these years.

However, the Spaniard of this and the following century was deeply religious. In the asientos, or agreements concerning the ways and means of planting colonies, the stipulation was always included that the conversion of the natives should be carefully looked after. The Spaniards early found that control over the savages could be maintained most easily where they were brought together in the missions, since by this means, the labor of the natives could be exploited and the danger of uprisings and revolts could be minimized.

Although the period from 1573 to 1593 was devoid of any extensive missionary activity, there was one notable exception to the stagnation that threatened Florida. This was the establishment of the San Pedro mission on San Pedro Island. It possessed the advantage of being near St. Augustine, and enjoyed the protection of a garrison maintained on the same island.

The revival came in 1593. During that year the Council of the Indies granted permission to twelve Franciscans to enter Florida. The following year Pedro de Corpa, Miguel de Auñon, Francisco de Velascola, Blas Rodriguez, and Antonio de Badajoz​a were sent to Guale. They arrived at an opportune time. The Guale Indians had rebelled against the Spaniards, and so dangerous had their hostility become that the soldiers of the small garrisons found it impossible to leave the stockades to secure provisions.1

The priests established their missions on the islands of the Georgia coast, where they, by means of "entreaties, gifts,  p46 soft words, and the great example of their work," gradually pacified the unruly natives. For more than two years they carried on their ministrations unmolested. The northernmost missions were those of Father Corpa at Tolomato, and father Rodriguez at Torpiqui on Ossabaw Island, and that of Father Auñon at Assopo on Guale Island.​2 Velascola and Dávila founded missions at Asao and Ospo on St. Simons and Jekyl Islands respectively.

In 1597 a young chief of the province of Guale, annoyed by the reprimands of Father Corpa, apostasized from the faith and instigated the Indians to revolt.​3 Gathering a group of malcontents, he advised them to go with him into the interior where they could enjoy the liberty to which they had been accustomed before the coming of the missionaries. This they did, but after a few days of contemplation over their grievances, real and imaginary, they decided to return and kill Father Corpa. As an argument in favor of this step, the chief predicted that if they did not kill the missionaries, the Spaniards would come in force and deprive them of their liberty and lands, the first step to which was the coming of the Franciscans, who, while talking of peace, were preparing to make themselves their masters. He further told them that after the missionaries were dead, it would be an easy matter to kill the soldiers, and only in that way could their liberty be preserved.​4 Following this advice the horde of  p47 hostile warriors, armed with bows and arrows and wearing large head-dresses of feathers, returned to the Christian Indians.

Going to Tolomato at night, the rebels concealed themselves in the church. At daybreak, when Father Corpa opened the door of his house, they killed him, cut off his head, and placed it on a stick, which in turn was tied to a post. Several of the natives of the settlement now joined the party of the rebellious chief. On the following day the young Indian collected his followers, and according to the chronicler of the affair, harangued them thus:

"Now the father is dead, but he would not have been if he had allowed us to live as we did before we became Christians. Let us return to our former customs, and prepare to defend ourselves against the punishment which the governor of Florida will try to inflict upon us, for if he succeeds in it, he will be as rigorous for this one father as though we had made an end of them all, for he will surely persecute us for the father we have killed the same as for all."​5

The suggestion that the surviving Franciscans be put to death was approved, and the leader continued:

They take away our women, leaving us only one in perpetuity, and prevent us from trading her; they interfere with our dances, banquets, foods, ceremonies, fires, and wars, in order that, by not practicing them we shall lose our ancient valor and skill, inherited from our ancestors; they persecute our old men, calling them magicians; even our work troubles them, for they try to order us to lay it aside on some days; and even when we do everything that they say, they are not satisfied; all they do is reprimand us, oppress us, preach to us, insult us, call us bad Christians, and take away from us all the happiness that our forefathers enjoyed, in the hope that they will give us heaven."​6

Fired by their hatred toward the Spaniards, the murderers went to Father Rodriguez's mission at Torpiqui. Entering  p48 his house suddenly and stealthily, they told him that they had come to kill him. The priest attempted to dissuade them, but they told him not "to weary himself preaching to them, but to call on God to help him."​7 Whereupon Rodriguez begged to be allowed to say mass, and requested that after his death they bury his body. He then divided the few things that he possessed among the poor Indians of the town, after which he knelt before his executioners. While in this posture he was slain, and his body thrown out in the open for the birds and beasts to eat. However, none approached it but a dog, "which ventured to touch it and fell dead."8

The Indians now sent a messenger to the chief of Guale Island, ordering him to kill the priests on that island, warning him that they were coming to see if it had been done, and if not, he and all his people would die with the missionaries. The chief, being friendly toward the Spaniards and unable to prevent the threatened invasion, secretly sent a supposedly faithful native to Assopo, where Auñon and Badajoz had their mission. He hoped that, when apprised of the danger, they would retire to the Spanish presidio some distance away on the same island, until the danger was past. In that way he would not only save the Franciscans but would also clear himself.

The messenger, however, through treachery or fear, did not deliver the message but returned to his master with a fictitious reply. The chief, who was well informed of the danger, again sent him to Assopo. This he did for three consecutive days, even offering the priests a boat to cross over to the mainland, but the warning never reached them. At the end of three or four days the rebels appeared, and such was their anger toward the Guale chief that he would have been killed had he not been able to offer plausible excuses. Wishing to be absolved from all blame he went to the mission, where he spoke to Father Auñon as follows:

 p49  "It would have been better if you had believed me, and had put yourself in safety; but you did not wish to take my advice, and it will not be possible to defend you from these people who have come to kill you."​9

The missionaries replied that they had been ignorant of all that, and that he should not be troubled, as they were willing to die. The chief then bade them farewell, saying that he was going away to weep for them, and that he would return and bury their bodies.10

Upon their arrival at Assopo, the Indians first sacked the mission, after which they fell upon the priests with sticks and macanas (wooden knives edged with flint). Father Auñon was held in such high esteem that, at the first blow given him, many of the Indians were moved to compassion and wished to save him. As he knelt before the savages, a dispute arose among them until one, stealing up behind, slew him. They left the bodies where they fell, but some Christian Indians buried them at the foot of a large cross which had been erected by Father Auñon.

The murderous band now crossed over in great haste to Asao, on St. Simons Island,​11 in search of Father Velascola. They learned in the town that the missionary was in St. Augustine, but, ascertaining the day he would return, they hid themselves in the reeds near the place at which he would disembark. As he was a man of immense physical strength they feared to attack him openly. When he landed they slyly approached him and he fell under the blows of the macanas and tomahawks.12

Continuing on their way southward, the Indians stopped at Jekyl Island​13 and surprised Father Dávila at his mission at Ospo. Hearing the clamor without, and understanding the  p50 danger, he refused to open the door. The invaders prepared to break it down, whereupon Father Dávila opened it and slipped past in the darkness while they sacked the building. They were as anxious to plunder as to kill, and occupied themselves first in seizing the spoils.14

While this was taking place the priest had time to conceal himself in a dense thicket near by. When the looting was finished, the rebels went out to look for Father Dávila, and upon discovering him began to shoot arrows at him. After having both shoulders pierced he was captured by the savages, who prepared to put him to death, but his life was spared when one of the enemy, desiring the poor clothing he wore, interceded for him. When they had deprived him of his clothing they sent him to one of their towns in the interior to serve as a slave.

Elated at their success, the natives, being reinforced by other malcontents, provided themselves with a good supply of arrows and embarked in more than forty canoes, with the intention of investing San Pedro Island and killing the missionaries and Spanish soldiers there. They especially desired to put to death the chief of that island, since he was an ally of the Spaniards and therefore their enemy. When they neared the harbor, likewise known as San Pedro, they saw a brigantine lying at anchor near the place where they would have to land. This boat had already remained in the harbor thirty days on account of contrary winds, and now its presence prevented the massacre of the inhabitants and the destruction of the important establishments maintained there.

The boat contained only one soldier and a few sailors, but the sight of it was sufficient to throw the hostile natives into confusion. Perceiving this confusion, the chief of the island sallied forth with more boats than his opponents possessed and attacked them. The invaders fought doggedly at first, but, seeing defeat before them, became panic-stricken and fled. Many of them leaped to the shore of the island, and  p51 having no means of escape were either killed or died of starvation in the woods. The leader escaped to the mainland with the survivors and fled to the north.

When Governor Canco of Florida heard of the insurrection, he led overland a force of infantry to the Peninsula of Guale, while a number of ships proceeded to the same destination.​15 The Indians, however, hid themselves in the swamps, and the governor was able to capture but one live Indian, an interpreter, from whom he secured no information other than that the missionaries had been killed. In retaliation the soldiers burned the corn in the fields, in consequence of which famine completed the punishment which the Spaniards found themselves unable to inflict.​16 The destruction of the crops reacted on the Spanish settlements, as supplies failed to arrive from Spain, and the officials now had no source from which to replenish their own failing stores.17

Wishing to ascertain if any of the missionaries still lived, Governor Canco continued his exertions. He sent a vessel to the Spanish settlement in Santa Elena (Port Royal Sound) in the spring of 1598 to enlist the support of the friendly natives of that region. Since they lived only a short distance from the Peninsula of Guale it was thought that they could harry the territory of the revolted Indians. Lieutenant Ecija, the commander of the vessel, bestowed gifts on the cacique of the Santa Elena tribe and promised to return in sixty days to learn the results of the proposed invasion.18

At the end of the specified time Lieutenant Ecija returned to Santa Elena and found that the cacique had waged war on the Guale Indians during his absence. He was informed that Father Dávila was a prisoner near the village of Solofina on the Peninsula of Guale. Ecija now coasted along the shore of Guale, hoping to pick up someone with further information  p52 concerning the captive. Stopping at Tolomato, he seized a native, who said the priest was still alive, and agreed after much coaxing to take a letter to him.

When the messenger returned, he brought with him several caciques, who promised to give up the missionary in return for certain Indian boys, sons of some of the chiefs, who were at that time held as hostages in St. Augustine. Ecija promised to return with the boys, as well as a quantity of hatchets and spades demanded by the Indians, within thirty days. Returning in fifteen days to Tolomato, he heaped gifts upon the chiefs, but they had undergone a change of mind and refused to give up the prisoner. Whereupon the lieutenant became angry, threatened to send for three hundred soldiers, and follow them to Tama.​19 Awed by these threats, the savages surrendered Father Dávila.20

Ecija now returned to St. Augustine, taking with him Father Dávila and seven Indians whom he had captured and whom he suspected of complicity in the murder of the Franciscans.​21 It now became known that the captive priest had been forced to carry water and wood and guard the fields of his captors.​22 They turned him over to the boys to shoot at with arrows and, tiring of his patience, finally decided to burn him at the stake. When he had been tied and the fire built before him, they offered to spare him if he would renounce his religion and acknowledge the gods of the Indians. This offer he refused, and rebuked them for their presumption.23

The Indians marvelled at the courage of their prisoner. One of the principal native women, whose son was a prisoner at St. Augustine, was moved to speak in his behalf, hoping to save the priest and exchange him for her son. On account of the prominence of this woman her request was granted. His  p53 captors now attempted to make restitution to the Franciscan by offering an Indian girl as a wife, but this offer was also spurned.24

When the rescue party reached St. Augustine the governor requested the custodian of the Convent of St. Francis, Father Marron, to permit Father Dávila to testify in the pending investigation. The custodian gave his consent, but Father Dávila refused to do so, saying that it was prohibited him by the canons of the priesthood. He maintained that the testimony of the seven captive Indians brought to the capital by Ecija would be sufficient to establish upon whom the responsibility for the crimes should rest.25

One of the prisoners was now brought before the governor, and, upon being questioned through an interpreter, replied that his name was Lucas; that he came from Torpiqui, and that his father was cacique there; that he was a Christian; that he had been present when Father Rodriguez was killed; that the father was killed because he forbade witchcraft and a plurality of wives; that he was not present when the other missionaries were killed.26

Upon questioning the other prisoners, it became evident in the minds of the officials that Lucas was one of the leaders in the revolt. He was therefore condemned to death for having been present and having participated in the death of Father Rodriguez. Proceedings against the other six Indians were postponed, as they were all boys under age.​27 Thus ended an affair that threatened for a time the very existence of the Spanish settlements throughout the provinces of Florida.

The Author's Notes:

1 Barcia Carbillido y Zuñiga (Cárdenas), Ensayo chronologico para la historia general de la Florida . . . (Madrid, 1723), year 1594, p167.

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2 According to Juan de Torquemada, Monarchia Indiana (Madrid, 1723), III.350, Assopo was on Guale Island. Tolomato and Torpiqui were not on this island but were not far distant since the revolted Indians, traveling from north to south were thoroughly acquainted with the topography and natives of the vicinity. Furthermore, the two northern missions were near Santa Elena (the region bordering on Port Royal Sound). [A. M. Brooks (ed.), The Unwritten History of old St. Augustine (St. Augustine, 1909?), p35] The most exact method of locating the missions is by a minute examination of the contemporary accounts. The distances of the establishments from St. Augustine, as well as from each other, are given in most cases, and this makes possible the identification of the various mission sites with a fair degree of certainty.

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3 The account of the revolt is taken from Barcia, Ensayo chronologico and Torquemada, Monarchia Indiana. These two accounts are substantially in agreement. Furthermore, the testimony taken at the subsequent trial of the leaders of the uprising apparently substantiates the truthfulness of the two accounts and sheds some additional light on these remote occurrences. This testimony has been translated and may be found in Brooks, Unwritten History of old St. Augustine, pp40‑47.

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4 Torquemada, Monarchia Indiana, III.351.

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5 Barcia, Ensayo chronologico, year 1597, p170.

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6 Ibid., loc. cit.

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7 Torquemada, Monarchia Indiana, III.351.

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8 Barcia, Ensayo chronologico, year 1597, p170.

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9 Torquemada, Monarchia Indiana, III.352.

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10 Ibid., loc. cit.

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11 Asao was 9½ leagues from Assopo ["Examination of Alonzo de las Alas," 1602. Ecija in his "Derrotero" says 10½. J. D. G. Shea, Catholic Church in Colonial Days (New York, 1886), p155].

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12 Barcia, Ensayo chronologico, year 1597, p170.

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13 The itinerary of the Indians would seem to indicate that Ospo was either on St Simons or Jekyl Island. Jekyl is the more probable site as Asao was on the southern end of St. Simons.

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14 Torquemada, Monarchia Indiana, III.352.

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15 Official Report of Governor Canco in Brooks, Unwritten History of old St. Augustine, p35. Presumably Ossabaw Island was known to the Spaniards as the Peninsula of Guale.

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16 Barcia, Ensayo chronologico, year 1597, p172.

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17 Torquemada, Monarchia Indiana, III.354.

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18 Report of Governor Canco in Brooks, Unwritten History of old St. Augustine, p36.

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19 The region bordering on the Altamaha River.

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20 Report of Governor Canco in Brooks, Unwritten History of old St. Augustine, p37.

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21 Ibid., p38.

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22 Barcia, Ensayo chronologico, year 1598, p172.

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23 Torquemada, Monarchia Indiana, III.354.

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24 Ibid., p353.

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25 Report of Governor Canco in Brooks, Unwritten History of old St. Augustine, p40.

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26 Report of Governor Canco in Brooks, Unwritten History of old St. Augustine, pp40‑42.

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27 Ibid., p47.

Thayer's Note:

a From The Americas, VII.368 (Jan. 1951): "Four of the martyrs are priests: Pedro de Corpa, Blas de Rodríguez, Miguel de Auñon, and Francisco Verascula. The fifth, Antonio de Badajoz, was a lay brother. [. . .] Many of the contemporary documents concerning these martyrs were published by Atanasio López, O. F. M., founder of the Archivo Ibero-Americano. They have appeared in English translation by Maynard J. Geiger, O. F. M."

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